When Bone Research received its first Journal Impact Factor (JIF) in 2014 (a meager score of 1.310), it didn’t receive much notice. The following year, Bone Research‘s JIF more than doubled to 3.549, then nearly tripled to 9.326 in 2016. This year, it received a score 12.354. It now is ranked second among Cell and Tissue Engineering journals.
In June, Clarivate Analytics, the company that calculates JIFs and other journal-level performance metrics, issued a bone-rattling Editorial Expression of Concern for Bone Research and four other journals, citing a “problematic pattern of citations” and “a particular concentration of citations to the journal Bone Research.”
Bone Research is a journal published by Springer Nature, in partnership with the West China School of Stomatology, Sichuan University, and the International Chinese Musculoskeletal Research Society.
The four other journals (Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Letters, Journal of Biobased Materials and Bioenergy, Journal of Biomedical Nanotechnology and Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology) are all published by American Scientific Publishers (ASP). The contact information for ASP lists a suite in a small office complex in Valencia, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. The founder, president and CEO of ASP is Dr. Hari Singh Nalwa, who also serves as Editor-in-Chief of two ASP journals. ASP is listed on an archived copy of Beall’s List of predatory publishers although it does not appear on either Cabell’s whitelist or blacklist of scholarly journals.
Bone Research is a very small journal. In 2015 and 2016 (the publication years used to calculate its latest Impact Factor), it published just 21 and 27 papers, respectively. In 2017, these 48 papers received a total of 593 citations, 244 of which came from the four American Scientific Publisher journals listed above. If we removed these citations, Bone Research‘s 2017 Impact Factor falls from 12.354 to 7.271 but still retains second place in its subject category.
This is a big change in score, but Bone Research performs well even without this large flow of citations from ASP journals. There were 200 other journals that cited Bone Research papers in 2017. Nevertheless, the construction of the Journal Impact Factor — a simple ratio of citations to published papers — is highly sensitive to citation irregularities among small journals, and Bone Research is a very small journal.
While Bone Research appears to have benefited from citations from four ASP publishers, the relationship was not mutually beneficial. In 2017, Bone Research cited just two of the four ASP journals and contributed just 5 JIF-directed citations to their scores (see Table). The more problematic pattern in citations appears to be found in ASP journals citing themselves.
The Journal of Biobased Materials and Bioenergy (JBMB) received a total of 953 citations in 2017, nearly half (440 or 46%) of which were focused on papers published in the previous two years (years that form the basis of its Journal Impact Factor calculation). Nevertheless, nearly all (206 of 212, or 97%) of citations from Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Letters were directed to JBMB‘s JIF, as were 98% (42 of 43) citations from the Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, and 92% (11 of 12) citations from Journal of Biomedical Nanotechnology. Self-citations from JBMB were equally focused on its JIF publication window (121 of 140, or 86%), see Table below. In contrast, just 14% of references from other journals cited JBMB papers published in the past two years. If we removed ASP citations, JBMB‘s Impact Factor would drop from 2.993 to just 0.408.
Similarly, Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Letters (NNL) received 1059 JIF-directed citations, 460 (43%) of which came from the three other ASP journals, and another 396 (37%) from itself. 81% of these citations contributed to NNL‘s JIF calculation, compared to 19% of citations from other journals. Without ASP citations, NNL‘s JIF would drop from 2.917 to just 0.559.
Clarivate’s Editorial Expression of Concern, published on the same day that the Journal Citation Reports (JCR) were released, stated that their editorial team was was undergoing an investigation and may take further action, such as journal suppression from the JCR and removal from the Web of Science.
Stephen Hubbard, Content Team Lead for the JCR responded to my inquiry by email that no further action was taken: “The investigation in regards to 2017 JCR data is closed. Journal selection continues to monitor these journals to ensure they meet our standards for coverage.”
Dr. Hari Nalwa, CEO of American Scientific Publishers and EiC of the Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (one of the journals named in the expression of concern), responded to my media inquiry stating that “China researchers [sic] were the cause of the problem” but refused to provide any more details of the problem or how it was resolved with Clarivate. “This problem has been resolved so there is nothing to say,” Nalwa added.
The JCR has a public document explaining the guidelines it uses to evaluate journals for suppression. However, as illustrated through reverse engineering previously suppressed titles, threshold levels are set extremely high, so high, that a journal that increased its Impact Factor by nearly 5-fold and moved to first-place among its subject category can escape suppression.
By remaining silent, Clarivate is hiding skeletons in their closet.
When an editorial team issues an expression of concern, it is because it has just learned of a serious problem that requires time to investigate and to take action. Only credible allegations should be made public since expression of concerns can do serious damage to the reputations of people and publishers. Indeed, such public allegations must be followed with public statements. In the case of Clarivate’s concern, it should have either suppressed journals or issued a public statement that it had undertaken an exhaustive investigation and could not find any cause for concern. Either way, Clarivate should have issued a separate statement.
There should be no bones about it. By remaining silent, Clarivate is hiding skeletons in their closet.
Table Notes: % JIF Numerator is the percentage of citations from the citing (donor) journal that form the numerator of the citing (recipient’s) Journal Impact Factor calculation. % Exchange to JIF Years is the proportion of citations from donor to recipient that are considered in the JIF calculation.